It’s awash in billions of dollars of debt, has a high-profile but ineffective governor and has a Republican Party that continues to lose relevance in a state it once dominated.
That’s California, where the battle to close a $26 billion budget gap got so bad that the state this summer had to start issuing IOUs in lieu of payments, and where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now putting state items on the auction block and on eBay to raise much needed cash.
Stepping into this morass are Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, two former CEOs of high-tech computer giants who are making their first forays into politics by targeting major offices in California-Fiorina for the U.S. Senate and Whitman for governor.
Both Fiorina, who was Hewlett-Packard’s chairman and CEO until her ouster in 2006, and Whitman, who as CEO helped build eBay from a startup to an Internet powerhouse, bring star power and truckloads of their own money onto the scene, both of which help give them a leg up on competitors for their party’s nominations.
Still, they both face significant challenges, from a lack of political experience to having to navigate the roiling waters that is the state Republican Party. They also could be hamstrung by the legacy of Schwarzenegger, another big-name and well-moneyed Republican with no real political experience who many voters feel has done little while in office and has mishandled California’s budget mess.
“When it comes to Fiorina and Whitman, in some ways, they’re coming to the party of [voters] experimenting with a private person [for public office] a little late,” Mark Petracca, an associate professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine, said in an interview. “I don’t think that, given the Schwarzenegger experience the state had, that people are interested in whether an executive [at a company] can make a good politician.”
Whitman, who retired from eBay in 2008 after 10 years at the helm of the online auction site, in February officially announced her candidacy to replace Schwarzenegger when his second term expires in 2011. Her top primary rivals include Steve Poizner, the state’s insurance commissioner and a Silicon Valley millionaire whose last startup, SnapTrack, created GPS devices placed in cell phones.
Fiorina first speculated about her political ambitions earlier this year, and in August registered a campaign committee called “Carly for California,” the first step in a possible 2010 run against three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Her only declared primary rival would be Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.
Even though Fiorina is not yet a declared candidate, Boxer already reportedly is using her as a rallying point with campaign donors. Recent polls have shown Whitman leading her GOP opponents and Fiorina close behind Boxer.
Whitman has been pushing an agenda that focuses on what campaign aides have said are key issues for California voters, including jobs and the economy. Fiorina has added the federal government into that mix.
“The people of California have serious concerns about job creation, economic growth and the role of government in solving problems that touch each of our lives,” Fiorina said in a recent statement. “I have received a great deal of encouragement to make a run for the Senate in 2010 from people across the political spectrum because these are all issues that need focused attention in Washington.”